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Photo courtesy X Prize Foundation

Slick systems

Technology | Contest highlights new and faster ways to cleanup oil spills

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

During last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 4.9 million barrels of crude spewed into the ocean for three months before BP workers could cap a broken wellhead. Only a quarter of the oil was recovered or burned. The spill was a fiasco, but one positive outcome was that it motivated ingenious minds to improve methods of collecting spilled petroleum from the seas. The X Prize Foundation recently announced winners of its oil-cleanup contest, drawing attention to oil spill innovators:

Elastec/American Marine: This oil spill cleanup group, based in Illinois, is the largest such company in the United States. Its engineers put their heads together to build a cleanup system that uses spinning discs mounted in rows and installed on a floating platform. The discs have grooves that oil sticks to naturally. When they're spun rapidly, they lick up voracious amounts of oil from seawater, channeling it to a collection tank with 90 percent efficiency (meaning only 10 percent of the collected liquid is seawater). While average oil recovery systems collect about 900 gallons of oil per minute, Elastec's disc-based system collected an astonishing 4,670 gallons per minute during the X Prize contest, earning it a $1 million first-place award.

NOFI: This Norwegian company earned second place for its V-shaped, inflatable boom that corrals oil and then separates it from the water. NOFI's system was used extensively during Gulf cleanup, with positive feedback, and its "Current Buster 6," used during the contest, collected 2,712 gallons of oil per minute.

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OilShaver: Built by a group of Norwegian companies, the OilShaver consists of two long, floating arms lying parallel that skim the surface of the water while being towed by a boat. A series of flaps "shaves" the oil from the water and channels it to a pump, where it is transferred to the ship.

Protei: Cesar Harada began designing sailboat drones after becoming frustrated with Gulf spill cleanup efforts. His Protei 6 prototype is a flexible, wind-driven craft about the size of a dolphin that he hopes will be able to drag a tail of absorbent boom through the paths of oil spills. (It's still in development and was not part of the X Prize competition.) The drones could be steered by remote control or onboard sensors-and since they lie flat in high winds, they wouldn't need to come to shore during storms.

Seeing through walls

By Daniel James Devine

Photo by Melanie Gonick

Ever wish you had X-ray vision? MIT researchers have created a device that can spot people or other moving objects behind solid concrete walls. It works by sending out microwaves and measuring the wavelengths that are reflected back: When something behind the wall moves, the system detects the change in wavelength and displays the movement on a monitor. If the device were mounted to a vehicle (it's a bit bulky at 8½ feet), its creators think U.S. soldiers might use it to spot enemies in urban combat situations.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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